The quantity of data The Nature Conservancy gathers would overwhelm most people: year-round, 24 hours a day, four times an hour, monitoring equipment at more than a dozen sites samples the headwaters of the Mackinaw River in central Illinois. But Conservancy scientists take the massive flow of information in stride, eager for details about water volume, the quantity of nutrients and how the system is affected by storms. All are crucial to understanding which conservation practices make a significant impact.
The Mackinaw is part of the Illinois River watershed, a major contributor to hypoxia — low oxygen dead zones that can no longer support aquatic life — in the Gulf of Mexico. A primary cause is runoff of excess nutrients from farms, especially in areas that no longer have surrounding wetlands to filter water before it gets to the rivers.
"We must improve water quality in our local watershed and also in the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. Our monitoring efforts tell us what works and help us target more precisely where wetland restoration can be most effective," says Dr. Maria Lemke, aquatic ecologist with the Conservancy.
After more than a decade of testing how best management practices affect aquatic habitats, biodiversity, water quality and hydrology, the Conservancy and its partners have created one of the longest running and most complete data sets in existence that rigorously measures wetland management practices in agricultural watersheds. While not every technique attempted along the Mackinaw River resulted in the hoped-for improvements to water quality, the data set nonetheless offers tremendous value to those who undertake water management in other streams and rivers.
Lemke notes that data collection is only one part of the solution. "Effective conservation is as much about people as it is about science. Most land along the Mackinaw River is privately owned and continues to be farmed, so outreach to property owners is a key component. We have to share how wetland restoration benefits their farms and their streams, show them what works and inspire them to take action on their own land," she says.
The Franklin Demonstration Farm in Lexington shows the potential for synergy of community and conservation. Located on 250 acres of the Franklin family's farm, this living laboratory allows farmers to see what wetland restoration looks like on the ground, while scientists use it to test an array of restoration strategies.
The year's payoff is in people, plants and animals. The farmer-to-farmer approach led one nearby landowner to establish his own wetlands and several others to strongly express interest. And there's a lyrical quality to the list of native plants and animals living alongside rows of corn and soybeans. More than 90 woodland plants and native grasses, such as oval ladies' tresses orchid, golden Alexander and wood anemone, and 57 documented bird species, including yellow-billed cuckoo, ruby-throated hummingbird and orchard oriole, are now found at the Demonstration Farm.
There will always be more data to collect, but the Conservancy accomplished enough this year to justify moving from the Mackinaw headwaters into larger watersheds and to begin thinking about which new partnerships will frame the next five years. After all, work on the Mackinaw River is helping the Conservancy identify and target best management practices and the best sites to locate wetlands — but the ultimate goal is to share knowledge and improve water quality far beyond this river's banks.